Tag Archives: war

Some Standard Wisdom for Managing Canals

In 1880, long before the canal would come to fruition but while it was certainly in the minds of many, the Christian Standard came out in favor of the Panama Canal. At the time, the French were preparing to build a canal, and in fact would make an expensive and deadly attempt at it in the following decade. The Christian Standard was very much opposed to this, for reasons that display the editors’ profound naivete and almost criminal patriotism.

It is nevertheless clear that the United States government, the only considerable government in the world, not committed to the war policy should guard this great highway of nations. Every such international work, however, is a great preserver of peace. The greater the interest of each nation in all other nations, the greater the interest of that nation in the preservation of peace. And there is no work in which all civilized nations would have a greater interest than in this canal. It is commerce that rules the world now, and it is commerce that always suffers in war. Therefore we may assume that a work in which the commerce of the world is directly concerned will diminish the possibilities of war. Let it be in the hands of a nation whose policy is peace, and no limit need be put on its influence on the affairs of men.

Funny. I always thought it was people, not commerce, that suffered in war.

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Preparing for the Nativity

Over the next few days, I would like to offer a few quotes to direct the mind toward the way the Nativity has been and still is celebrated and conceived of in the world. Naturally, in the States and much of Europe, the Feast of the Nativity has been replaced by the ho-ho-holy night when Saint Nicholas breaks into suburban homes to fill stockings with Apple products, but this turn in the observation of Christ’s birth is relatively recent and largely localized. The real “war on Christmas” has been waged by those who believe that the essence of the holy day rests in public manger scenes and the shibboleth “Christmas” and who forget that the real manger was hidden away where the poorest of the poor slept on a ground of mixed dirt and livestock feces and that the baby within it was attended to only by a marginal minority whose names are forgotten.

Leo the Great is right to call the Nativity a mystery. The virgin birth, the shining star, the visiting magi, the announcing angels, the murderous ruler, and the supreme king converge in a moment that, truly understood, should bring us a joy that transcends gifts and feasts and winter ambiance and even that laudatory idol of familial affection.

The things which are connected with the mystery of today’s solemn feast are well known to you, dearly-beloved, and have frequently been heard: but as yonder visible light affords pleasure to eyes that are unimpaired, so to sound hearts does the Saviour’s nativity give eternal joy; and we must not keep silent about it, though we cannot treat of it as we ought.

For Leo’s listeners, the Nativity was a familiar remembrance, one so familiar that they needed to be reminded how eternal were its joys. Now, I fear, we don’t think about it at all.

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Walt Whitman on War

The quotes that authors elect to head their chapters with are almost universally more interesting than the chapters themselves. Take this quote from Walt Whitman found atop “The Argument (and Its Limits) in Brief” in J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires:

[The] whole damn war business is about nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.

Whitman was being generous.

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The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: “It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with “nature” or “the environment.” No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say.” Nor should they. Fiege’s work–which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history–demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more “conventional” history. But, as much as Fiege’s work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege’s attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled “atomic sublime,” Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that “the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good.” This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege’s argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos “the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values.” It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace–ultimately saving more lives than it took–and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What’s more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. “When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. ‘We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,’ Richard Feynman wrote.” The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, “the spirit just wasn’t there.” The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was “not pro-war. I’m most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree.”

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of “openness, toleration, and democracy.”* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not “deep moral ambiguity” and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege’s interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege’s is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

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When I began this project, it took me more than a year to reach one hundred entries. My rate of posting has increased dramatically, not because I have more to say but because I have had the opportunity to allow others to speak with greater frequency. The commemoration of the numerous quotes shared here has become something of a personal tradition, and so, on this my five hundredth post, I offer you once again my favorite ten quotes from the numerous insights shared in previous ninety-nine posts.

10) The absurdity of the news is a recurrent theme here, and the past six months has offered no respite from the onslaught of ridiculous news stories. The election stands out as a year long tribute to this insanity, from which numerous quotes might be drawn. Yet, it was this understated, now forgotten story of a couple suing over a baseball injury:

A New Jersey woman who was struck in the face with a baseball at a Little League game is suing the young catcher who threw it.

Elizabeth Lloyd is seeking more than $150,000 in damages to cover medical costs…Catcher Matthew Migliaccio was 11 years old at the time and was warming up a pitcher.

9) Not all sports news was so amusing or so obscure. Since the last top ten, the drama at Penn State has continued to unfold in ways that I continue to find indefensible. The NCAA handed down what were supposed to be program destroying sanctions (never mind that the Nittany Lions have marched proudly on to have a respectable season), but the Paterno family continues in the level-headed tradition of its now deceased patriarch:

The point of due process is to protect against this sort of reflexive action. Joe Paterno was never interviewed by the University or the Freeh Group. His counsel has not been able to interview key witnesses as they are represented by counsel related to ongoing litigation. We have had no access to the records reviewed by the Freeh group. The NCAA never contacted our family or our legal counsel. And the fact that several parties have pending trials that could produce evidence and testimony relevant to this matter has been totally discounted.

Unfortunately all of these facts have been ignored by the NCAA, the Freeh Group and the University.

8) Many of the quotes shared here relate to issues of war and peace, indicating my distinct preference for the latter. To an already extensive catalog, I was able to recently add the collective wisdom of several Nobel laureates protesting, of all things, a reality show that trained celebrities in the art of war:

Real war is down in the dirt deadly…Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.

7) Historians, as a rule, affect me less profoundly than do theologians, philosophers, and ethicists. Eugene Genovese is an astounding exception to this rule. Much to my dismay, he died not so long ago, but he has left us with a tremendous body of work that will continue to live on and continue to stimulate. This quote was offered as a sample as we said goodbye to Gene Genovese:

Southern conservatism has always traced the evils of the modern world to the ascendency of the profit motive and material acquisitiveness…to an idolatrous cult of economic growth and scientific and technological progress; and to the destructive exploitation of nature. Thus, down to our day, southern conservatives have opposed finance capitalism and have regarded socialism as the logical outcome of the capitalist centralization of economic and state power…

What goes largely unnoticed is that, on much of the American Right, the conservative critique of modernity has largely given way to a free-market liberalism the ideal of which shares much with the radical Left’s version of egalitarianism.

6) Germany, it was discovered recently, could benefit from a greater sensitivity to history. Ignoring the obvious perception it would create, a German judge effectively outlawed religious circumcision. As an advocate for the responsibility of parents to make medical (and religious) decisions on behalf of children, I was delighted when the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the issue:

“It’s not a verdict from on high,” said policy co-author Dr. Andrew Freedman. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all-answer.” But from a medical standpoint, circumcision’s benefits in reducing risk of disease outweigh its small risks, said Freedman, a pediatric urologist in Los Angeles…”The benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for those families who choose it.”

5) Meanwhile, there was real religious strife going on in the world:

We will not encourage our people to carry arms against anybody whatsoever the situation may be. For those that are behind Boko Haram, you come to us with AK47, bombs, charms and other dangerous weapons, but we come to you in the name of God.

I want to assure Christians in Nigeria that Christ has always been with his people. He will never give victory to those persecuting Christians and the Church. Whoever is trying to exterminate Christians and Christianity from Nigeria is neither pleasing God nor his people.

4) Having prophetically (and oh so modestly) argued that the solution to the education crisis in America was to pay teachers less, the atavistic Chicago teachers went on strike and proved themselves better fear-mongers than educators, tragically unaware of their own disastrous behavior:

“The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically controlled public schools with privately run charter schools. This will have disastrous results,” union president Karen Lewis wrote in an opinion column in the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.

3) In the run up to the election, we explored the nature of the news and freedom of the press, including this insight from a letter sent to George Washington:

Judicious and well-timed publications have great efficacy in ripening the judgment of men in this quarter of the Continent.

2) Even as my academic focus, and consequently my focus here, shifts from the Orthodox Church to indigenous American Christianity, I can never forget my first academic love. Here is a teaser for a particularly amusing bit of satire that I was directed to:

Hipster Christians, I’m going to help you out. I see you are grasping at something, trying to find the ironic Church of your dreams, where men can grow beards of foolish proportions and women can dress like their grannies’ grannies, a place where scarves are worn in every unfashionable fashion imaginable, a place where people do shots and eat hummus at community gatherings, enjoy rooms filled with a fog of incense and prefer to read books that pre-date industrialisation.

I would like to direct your attention to “The Orthodox Church.”

1) But, of course, the best news recently…the best news always…was cow news:

Would protection against the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) make you willing to give up your vegan lifestyle? New research from Australia’s Melbourne University suggests that a type of treated cow’s milk could provide the world’s first HIV vaccine.

And now, let us rush headlong together into many more hours wasted merrily in reflection and sardonic commentary.

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The Wisdom of Everett Colby

If you haven’t heard of Everett Colby, you shouldn’t feel bad. He’s not important. Unless you happened to stumble across his comically brief Wikipedia entry or, as I did, a stray piece of folksy wisdom in the New York Times, there is no reason to remember the late New Jersey state senator. Nevertheless, I invite you to consider the simple profundity of the following, from 1927:

Everett Colby sums up the weary lesson the world has been studying since 1914. Says he, “No one wins wars, so why not have peace?”

That is all the article had to say about war or about Everett Colby, but in many respects that seems like all that needs to be said.

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Amusing Notes from the Past

In doing some research recently on the contemporary reception of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, I stumbled upon an interesting recurring page in the New York Times called “Footnotes on Headlines.” It’s unfortunate, really, that I don’t have a better grasp on the history of the period–I admit a principled disinterest in anything that happened between World War I and the 2011 Missoula Cow-a-bunga competition–because, if I did, I imagine the humorous snippets would be even funnier. Here are just a couple from 1927 that very little advanced historical knowledge is needed to enjoy:

Bert Acosta and Clarence Chamberlin demonstrate that they can stay up in the air about as long as any pair of filibustering Senators in these United States.

The Balkans again. Italy shrieks that Yugoslavia is starting a war against Albania. Yugoslavia shouts that Italy schemes to use Albania as a catspaw in seizing control of the Adriatic. France, England and Germany turn those hose on them all. It is felt in the world that the Balkans should be seen, not heard, for a change.

High-heeled shoes continue their health-wrecking course in the world, despite the wholesome warnings periodically broadcast by the medical professionals and this public-spirited department. The latest victim is General Primo de Rivera, who slipped on the polished floor of his palatial office and lit on his head. When will our dictators, military and otherwise, get a little sense about footwear, we ask in despondent tones.

In forty-two years of public service, Dr. William H. Guilfoy, Registrar of records in the Department of Health, has seen smallpox, cholera and typhus almost eliminated as causes of death in New York City, and the death rate from typhoid fever and diphtheria reduced to a small fraction of its old proportions. The automobile epidemic has, of course, come in to rage in our midst. There is always something.

There are countless others, of course, and assuredly more in years beyond 1927. Perhaps, time permitting, I may rummage through them and share some more.

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Here’s an Idea, Don’t Vote: Violence and Representative Democracy

There’s an election today. Have you heard? This will come as a shock to no one who has ever visited this site, but I will not be voting this year. I also didn’t vote four years ago. Or four years before that. Or…you get the drift. As a committed old, tried and true Christian anarchist, I have watched the campaign season very closely, the way I might watch a really interesting football game, or a Spike “world’s most unbelievable car crashes” marathon. Politics–infinitely more than contact sports and traffic accidents–has proves itself again and again to be irredeemably violent. Beyond that basically standard pacifist complaint, however, I would like to offer three reasons why I, as a Christian, am not voting and, wait for it, why I encourage other Christians not to vote either. If you’re not a Christian, you should vote; it’d be a shame if you didn’t. (Not nearly as big a shame as it is that you’re not a Christian, of course.) In any case…

With this final argument, I will most nearly approach the essential quarrel that Christian anarchism has with government generally and representative democracy specifically. To do this, however, requires an examination both of the nature of the state and the moral implications in our republican form of government. Though less concrete and more nuanced than other pleas to avoid participation in the democratic process, it still serves as the most compelling reason to see voting as immoral rather than merely unnecessary, ineffective, or unimportant.

David Lipscomb states succinctly what later theologians have agonized over with regard to man’s original sin: “God would govern and guide man; man would govern the under-creation, and so the whole world would be held under the government of God, man immediately and the under-creation through man. But, man refused to be governed by God…The institution of human government was an act of rebellion and began among those in rebellion against God, with the purpose of superseding the Divine rule with the rule of man.” The term en vogue now to discuss man’s fall is “autonomy,” but the notions are the same. The account of the first sin in Genesis boils down to the belief that humanity knew better than God how to manage its own affairs.

It is not a coincidence that the second sin is murder. Violence follows logically on the heels of rebellion. Eve having usurped the divine prerogative to rule, Cain usurps the divine prerogative to judge. Ignoring the divine approbation showered on Abel, Cain renders his own terminal judgment about his brother and summarily executes him.

It is equally understandable then that civil government should arise both as an attempt to curb the influences of these sins and as their supreme manifestation. On the one hand, civil government exists to give wrest the rights of authority and judgement from the hands of the individual, a transfer of power which is necessary in order for society to function. At the same time, however, civil government exists as the collaborative human expression of that primary impulse toward autonomy. God is no more lawgiver and judge now than in the days after the fall. Instead, humanity set up an alternative lawgiver and judge to stand in the place of God. The state is essentially and inescapably an idol to our own sense of superior self-determination.

It’s a truth so inescapable, God Himself might as well have uttered it:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Samuel obeys, and in his subsequent warning to the people he points out that the king will be the source of constant oppression for the people. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Samuel, to say nothing of the LORD, recognizes that human governments will always be tied inexorably to violence. Civil government, simply defined, is the ability–granted or assumed–to coerce others to behave in ways they would not otherwise. People pay their taxes because they fear the IRS, not because they have any confidence in the federal government to invest their money wisely. People drive the speed limit to avoid getting a ticket, not because they are opposed in principle to driving more than 25-mph in a school zone. A government which does not have coercive authority–which is a poor euphemism for violence–to enforce its laws instantly collapses.

But, as we’ve already seen, Christians have no investment in coercing non-Christians to mimic a Christian society. All our efforts to do so have in fact been counterproductive. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. There is no government which can function on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount because civil government unavoidably implies violence. A foreign policy which extols “turn the other cheek” and “resist not evil” invites invasion. Imagine, moreover, a candidate running on the economic platform, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” (Never mind that the recent rescue of Wall Street, the banks, and big business has proved the biblical adage “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”) Our judicial system would grind to an immediate halt if it were to embrace “Judge not, that you be not judged”–without moving over to talk about “he who is without sin.” There’s no reason to even discuss the golden rule. The fundamental incompatibility of Christianity and civil government should be obvious merely from a liberal exercise of human reason, but Paul does Christians the service of highlighting the dichotomy in Romans when he tells Christians that they must express love and peace and allow the government to be God’s unwitting agent for vengeance.

Therein lies the special problem for representative democracy. For Paul, it was simple: Christians and governments were discrete ethical units. The same is not true in a representative democracy. It has been a while since most of us took a high school civics course, and, if yours was anything like mine, it was worthless to begin with. Here is the way our government works. Our nation is too large and unwieldy to have a direct democracy, wherein everyone actually exercises a specific voice in the construction of policy. Instead, through voting and other means of political activism, Americans elect a small representative group of people to construct policy on their behalf. For the non-Christian, the process is simple enough: choose whichever candidate is most likely to achieve the political ends most important to you.

Here is the problem for Christians. By choosing to elect a representative, we make ourselves complicit in everything that is done on our behalf. That’s unpleasant to think about and easy to dismiss uncritically, but that is the nature of the American system of government. President Obama has your proxy to act in the executive branch. Maybe you didn’t vote for him, and maybe that means you can sleep better at night know that your spotless Christian hands aren’t stained with the blood of the people he assassinated by remote control. But unless you make a habit of losing, there is someone who is representing you in the American government, and it is necessary then to come to terms with the fact that government by its very nature behaves in ways forbidden to Christians.

War serves a legitimate function in statecraft, as does, arguably, capital punishment. But the Christ who told Peter to sheath his sword and stepped in front of the Jewish firing squad to save an adulteress models a different behavior, an ethical lifestyle that Christians are obligated to follow. Whoever you vote for, whoever is elected is employed only and entirely in the business of violence, that is in the business of coercing people to do what they would not do if given the choice. Whether it is taxes, speed limits, capital punishment, marriage rights, restrictions on abortion, or a war in Iran (because dying in the Middle East is the new American pastime) is irrelevant. Government is in the business of violence, and our government is in the business of doing violence with the consent of and on behalf of the voting public.

There is a solution, of course, for Christians. If to vote means to insinuate yourself ethically if not personally into the vile business of politics, then don’t vote. It’s not a matter of apathy or a recognition of futility. Instead, it is an affirmation that you belong to a different kingdom with a different King. Moreover–unlike America which continues to prove both its ambition and ineptitude on this front–our King will one day have everything put into subjection under his feet, without need of my vote or my campaign contributions. This is not a disengagement with the world. It is a proud boast that, in Christ, we have be granted a different mode of engagement with the world. One in which “when reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Christians reject, loudly and audaciously, the governing assumption the state that order is born out of violence and community out of coercion. By not voting, we concede the work of evil to the working of evildoers and reserve for ourselves the practice of untainted righteousness.

Perhaps more importantly, when Christians refuse to vote, we protect ourselves from the errors of the Israelites. We forget neither that God is our King nor the deeds He has worked on our behalf. We heed the advice of Solomon to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” and sing with the psalmist, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” There is a stand to take this election more important than opposition to abortion. There is a gospel to preach truer than economic equality of opportunity. That message begins when Christians extricate themselves from the polls and resume their stance as critics from without, voices in the wilderness crying “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

If the kingdom of heaven really is at hand, why are we so invested in the politics of the kingdoms of this world?

[Reason 1; Reason 2]
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David Lipscomb: A New Take on an Old Story

Actually, what follows is not a new take on the Babel story at all. It was a fairly common hermeneutical move during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, when they sat you down in Sunday school and taught you about the tower of Babel, I suspect it was never intended to be an illustration of the evils of government. How did Lipscomb and so many others make this hermeneutical leap? Let’s see:

It is clear that human government had its origin in the rejection of the authority of God, and that it was intended to supersede the Divine government, and itself constituted the organized rebellion of man against God. This beginning of human government God called Babel, confusion, strife. It introduced into the world the organized development and embodiment of the spirit of rebellion, strife and confusion among men. God christened it Babel. It soon grew into the blood-thirsty, hectoring Babylon, and subjugated the surrounding families, tribes and kingdoms to its dominion, and became the first universal empire of the earth, and maintained its sway until the days of Daniel.

When we consider that God and the early inhabitants of the earth named things, persons, and institutions from their chief and distinguishing characteristic, it cannot be doubted, that God
intended in calling this first government established by man “confusion,” and in so speedily confusing the language of its founders, to foretell that the chief and necessary results flowing from the displacement of the Divine will and the establishment and perpetuation of human government, would be confusion, strife, bloodshed, and perpetual warfare in the world. The results have vindicated the truth of the prophecy couched in the name. The chief occupation of human governments from the beginning has been war. Nine-tenths of the taxes paid by the human family, have gone to preparing for, carrying on, or paying the expenses of war.

All the wars and strifes between tribes, races, nations, from the beginning until now, have been the result of man’s effort to govern himself and the world, rather than to submit to the government of God. I am not intimating in this, that human government is not necessary, I believe that it is necessary, and that God has ordained it as a punishment to man for refusing to submit to the government of God and it must exist so long as the human family or any considerable portion of it refuses to submit to the government of God. Human government originated in the rebellion of man against his Maker, and was the organized effort of man to govern himself and to promote his own good and to conduct the affairs of the world independently of the government of God. It was the organized rebellion of man against God and his government. The essential character of this government, as portrayed by God will be given here-after.

Lipscomb’s hermeneutical lens, not to mention his grasp of ancient history, may leave something to be desired, but, for my part, after I first read this interpretation of the Babel story, I never looked at the beginning of Genesis the same way again.

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An Unreconstructed Prayer

I came across this little prayer in Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood and kept coming back to it.

Lord we acknowledge Thee as the all-wise author of every good and perfect gift. We recognize Thy presence and wisdom in the healing shower. We acknowledge Thou had a divine plan when Thou made the rattle-snake, as well as the song bird, and this was without help from Charles Darwin. But we believe Thou will admit the grave mistake in giving the decision to the wrong side in eighteen hundred and sixty-five.

J. William Jones’ thoroughly Confederate prayer is an easy object for scornful derision or amused mockery, but I imagine at the time it seemed a powerful expression of the mind not only of the speaker but of the audience. If it was met with any reaction at all, I suspect it was hearty assent from the North Carolina audience.

Meanwhile, are we any more careful in the way we address ourselves to God. With the level-heads of calmer thinkers or the benefit of the perspective of history, how will people evaluate the all too often modern prayer that God will ensure that our soldiers be the ones to kill their soldiers and not the other way around. Do we suppose God receives those prayers any better than the informed criticisms of Jones? They certainly are no less self-interested or self-involved, no less tribalist than the Lost Cause musings of the rebel veteran.

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